“The Right to Strike”

I’ve been trying to find out about the  controversial 1920 play, The Right to Strike by Ernest Hutchinson. In this, railway workers on a Yorkshire line have a legitimate grievance about their wages, so they strike, knowing that without the railway, food and essential supplies will soon run out in the isolated town of Valleyhead. A tough-minded local doctor, just back from the war, organises a quasi-military operation of lorry convoys to beat the strike. Some of the strikers fix a booby trap on the road; a lorry is overturned and the driver, another young doctor, is killed. The ex-R.A.M.C. man therefore decides to fight like with like, and announces a doctor’s strike – they will attend no railwayman or member of a railwayman’s family until the strike is over.

In the words of the Times reviewer, the play’s subject “was one which must naturally be a subject of much serious thought in these difficult times – the attitude of the middle classes to the ever-recurrent strike.” The attitude which the play depicts, and partially endorses, is that of an unsentimental determination to fight direct action with direct action. I have been reading the novelisation published to cash in on the play’s success, and in this it is made clear that  this tough-mindedness is an attitude that had been learnt in the hard school of war.The room in which the strike-breakers plan their campaign is described as “busy as an orderly room”; a strike-breaker warned of the cold night laughs that “It won’t be half as bad as Belgium in January”; one of the helpers organising convoys whistles “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” and asks, rather contentedly, “Isn’t it like being back at the war again?” The strikers, on the other hand are compared to those ever-unpopular villains of twenties texts, the wartime profiteers:” Though they dealt in dealt in pounds and even shillings, were they not equally guilty with those magnates who were even now holding up commodities in order to extort a larger profit later?”

Hutchinson acknowledges that the railway workers, many of whom had also been soldiers, had just grievances and expectations. As the novelisation editorialises:

To the least intelligent it was clear that England had been saved from spoliation by the men who the men who fought, and those men were in the main the workers, the men who possessed nothing but their lives and their strength. Collectively they had saved the whole vast wealth of England – for whom?

The main representative of the workers is Ben Ormerod, who during the war had been “a strapping sergeant of the Lancashire Fusiliers”; he is portrayed as a thoughtful man, a good husband and a natural leader – but led astray by the rhetoric of a socialist agitator. His instincts are humane and practical, but theextremist ideology leads him into a position where he is unable to control the violence of the men that he is leading in the strike. Where the officer-led strikebreakers are efficient, organised and controlled, the strikers are represented as volatile, violent and chaotic.

The Times reviewer of the play found a “meticulous impartiality” in it, but felt that it “discussed much and solved nothing.” Indeed, the ethical questions are not pushed as far as they might be, since the doctors are saved from making the very hardest decisions by the last-act resolution of the strike. The prospect of direct vigilante action as a possible “attitude of the middle classes to the ever-recurrent strike” has been raised, but the audience are left to ponder what its final consequences might be. I bet a lot of them felt rather attracted to the idea, though…

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